James Lesley is currently a graduate student at the University of Vermont’s Master of Science in Dietetics program.

James Lesley is currently a graduate student at the University of Vermont’s Master of Science in Dietetics program.

There always seems to be a new health craze buzzing around, whether it’s a new exercise routine or a “cure-all” food that will help us be healthier. But what if the solution to achieving a healthy lifestyle was all about how we think rather than how we act?

A relatively new – and quickly growing – body of research is emerging about mindful eating. It has been tried in a variety of settings – everything from smoking cessation to weight loss. Although results have been mixed about its efficacy, using mindfulness has become an innovative and popular tool for health professionals in order to help their clients and patients achieve their goals.

What is mindful eating?

Most often, we eat what we want, when we want. In contrast, mindful eating, as “Am I Hungry?” (Hyperlink: http://amihungry.com/what-is-mindful-eating/) puts it, is eating with intention and with attention.

In other words, it is a technique that helps us determine why we are hungry and helps reveal things, like the environment and mood in which we eat. It can act as a pause before, during, or after eating a snack or meal during which we look more deeply into why we are eating a particular food and how it affects us. This helps bring a heightened state of awareness to the act of eating, culminating in a special type of meditation.

What is mindless eating?

While not everyone practices mindful eating, almost everyone has practiced mindless eating at least once in his or her life.

Sometimes the 200-plus food-related decisions we make each and every day become too much to handle. When this happens, our impulses, habits, and physical environment lead us right into the trap of mindless eating. Many elements, such as an open candy dish on the coffee table or the size of the plate we use, contribute to mindless eating. Because mindfulness aims to increase awareness, we can then use mindful eating techniques to change the environment that we eat in to help increase the chances of making healthy choices.

Brian Wansink, PhD at the Cornell Food Lab has conducted several studies that show both the size and shape of glasses and dishes affect how much we serve ourselves and therefore how much we eat. In his book Mindless Eating, he describes one experiment run during an episode of the TV show “20/20” with his fellow Nutritional Science Division staff members and PhD students. They were all invited to an ice cream party, but some received 17-ounce bowls and some received 34-ounce bowls. The partygoers then served themselves and had to fill out a quick survey to distract them from having their bowls weighed. On average, those with the bigger bowls scooped and consumed 31% more ice cream than those with smaller bowls. It just goes to show that even people who study nutrition for a living can be fooled as easy as anyone else!

How do I start practicing mindful eating?

One of the first steps in practicing mindful eating is to identify why you are eating. It doesn’t have to be with every single thing you eat at first, perhaps during just one meal or snack that is typically challenging.

One helpful practice is to identify your type of hunger. In her book Mindful Eating, Jan Chozen Bays, MD, identifies seven types of hunger: eye, nose, mouth, stomach, cellular, mind, and heart. Each type is connected to an emotion or physiological response that ultimately lead us to eat. This will help identify where the hunger is coming from. Ask yourself: “Am I hungry because I haven’t eaten in several hours? Or am I hungry because I am seeing and smelling food from the restaurant across the street right now?” Simply acknowledging where your hunger is coming from can be a powerful tool and help make healthier choices.

When recognizing hunger becomes a habit, you can then move into bringing awareness to the sensory and environmental aspects of foods. Take a food you love and eat just one bite. What does it taste like? How does the texture change as you chew it? What are your emotions before versus after eating the food? Are you always in a specific place when you eat it? Repeat this process with a food you don’t like as much and make note of why you don’t like it. Changing the way you think about food and eating is a big but important step in accomplishing the two tenets of mindful eating: becoming more aware of what you eat and why you eat.

From there, the sky is the limit. With enough practice, mindful eating can be a part of everyday life just as any other form of meditation would be. There are many resources available to help you achieve mindful eating habits; some of the popular ones are listed below.

  • Mindful Eating, by Jan Chozen Bays, MD
  • Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat, by Michelle May, MD
  • Healthy at Every Size, by Linda Bacon, PhD
  • Am I Hungry? Website at: http://amihungry.com/what-is-mindful-eating/
  • Mindless Eating, by Brian Wansink, PhD

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